AG opinion: Commission has legal right to allow pedestrians/bicyclists on bridge

Published 9:02 pm Thursday, August 16, 2018

Advocates for opening the Old Mississippi River Bridge to pedestrian and bicycle traffic year-round got some good news from a Mississippi Attorney General’s opinion about the use of the historic bridge.

Lawyers for the Warren County Board of Supervisors and the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, who sought an official opinion from the AG’s office regarding the commission’s legal authority to reopen the bridge to the public for the purpose of pedestrian and bicycle traffic and to expend its funds to pursuing the reopening of the bridge for such purposes, received an AG letter Aug. 10 stating the commission does have the legal authority.

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The AG letter cites Section 65-25-53 of the Mississippi Code, which charges the Vicksburg Bridge Commission with “managing and controlling the affairs of the bridge.”

“We are of the opinion that Section 65-25-53 provides authority under state law for the Commission to reopen the bridge to the public and permit pedestrian/bicycle (on the) traffic portion not leased to the railroad,” the AG’s letter states. “Pedestrian and bicycle traffic on public thoroughfares are legal unless specifically prohibited by statute or regulation.”

The letter also states Section 65-25-53 “charges the Commission with managing and controlling the affairs of the bridge, and, in connection therewith, authorizes the Commission to ‘employ nationally recognized engineers and such other professional assistance deemed necessary, and to pay reasonable compensation for such services.’”

Currently, the Kansas City Railroad leases a portion of the bridge, which has not been open to vehicle traffic in decades. However, the 18-foot wide area that once allowed vehicle traffic is used for special events for pedestrians and bicyclists. KCR officials have made it clear over the years they are not in favor of opening the bridge to regular pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

After hearing from supporters of opening the section of the bridge to pedestrians and bicyclists, in particular Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge group, the Warren County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in June “asking the bridge commission to take such action as it deems reasonable and appropriate to open the 18-foot wide roadway for pedestrian and bicycle traffic on a daily basis.”

“The official AG opinion is another very good step to help the Bridge Commission reopen the Mississippi River Bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle venue,” Linda Fondren, a member of Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge, said.

“We are bridging the gap, and it’s exciting to share the progress and collaboration because I know we can do this,” added Annette Kirklin, another member of Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge.

County Attorney Blake Teller said he and Robert Bailess, attorney for the bridge commission, would likely reach out to officials with KCR and try to come to some agreement on reopening the bridge.

“What we’d like to do next is reach out to the railroad, sit down and discuss options to make this work as a joint effort,” Teller said. “We’d prefer to work with the railroad.”

Attempts to reach officials with KCR were unsuccessful at press time.

The Vicksburg Bridge Commission consists of Superintendent Herman Smith, as well as Tom Hill, O.A. Williams, Dorwin Shields, Wayne Muirhead and Robert Moss, who are all appointed by the Board of Supervisors to a five-year term.